The Power of "Warts and All" Moviemaking: Director Taylor Hackford Talks Ray

Early Oscar buzz may be the Holy Grail for most directors, but Taylor Hackford isn’t your average Hollywood helmer.

Working in and out of the system for more than 25 years now, Hackford earned an Oscar for his very first film, the short Teenage Father, in 1978, and has gone onto direct and/or produce more than a dozen other films, including An Officer and a Gentleman and Dolores Claiborne.

Hackford’s talent for developing great material is matched only by his knack for nurturing true acting talent and helping to make household names out of talents like Richard Gere, Debra Winger, and now Jamie Foxx. Content to leave the technical tricks of the trade to his contemporaries, Hackford instead chooses to focus on the quality of his storytelling—and collaborators—and hopes that audiences will join him for the ride. If the early word surrounding Foxx’s starring turn as the late, great Ray Charles is any indication, Hackford will definitely have some company.

Hackford spoke with us from New Orleans (where much of the film was shot) the morning after his cast and crew screening of Ray, a film that was 15 years in the making.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Already there’s been a ton of Oscar buzz surrounding Ray. How does that kind of talk affect you and your expectations of a film?

Taylor Hackford (TH): When you’ve spent 15 years trying to get a film made that most people said shouldn’t be made or couldn’t be made or wouldn’t be made—even while I’m shooting the film, wondering whether the next day I’ll have to tell the crew to go home—I take all of that with a grain of salt. I’m so pleased to have the movie finished; I’m pleased that people who have seen the film like it.

Remember, this is an independent film, it’s not a studio film; it was only picked up five months ago by Universal for distribution. So in that instance, I welcome any sort of buzz, because it might help an audience find the picture in theaters… It’s a great story and people are surprised—they discover things they didn’t know. That, to me, is what people seldom get in a movie and I know my film delivers it. So I’m not worried about the buzz because I believe if the people come they’ll enjoy the picture and won’t be disappointed, number one. And number two: Anything, at this point, is a bit of a miracle, considering the long gestation and the history of this film.

MM: Was it really 15 years ago that you started making this?

TH: Yeah; I got the rights from Ray Charles in 1987. It’s taken a long time! (laughing)

MM: Ray Charles was very much involved in the making of this, right?

TH: Yes. The making of the film was a great experience, but the process of development and the process of ultimately getting to the altar was a life experience for me because I was collaborating with this incredible American artist who I consider to be a genius. It’s an overused term, but people have this kind of weird conception of “genius.” ‘Oh, they created art and it’s very beautiful so they must be beautiful.” No! They’re complicated, difficult, thorny individuals and that’s a definition of Ray Charles, very definitely. When you are working with somebody who is truly historic in his creation and in his abilities, what you end up doing is raising the level of your game substantially. And it was a great experience.

MM: You said that a lot of people said the film should never be made. What were the general reasons why you kept hearing “no”?

TH: In the ’80s, I produced La Bamba, which was the story of Ritchie Valens’ life. I’m very proud of the film; it did very well—it’s still the highest-grossing, Latino-oriented film in Hollywood. But Ritchie Valens’ career was 18 months long; he died when he was 18 years old, so it lent itself to a low-budget film. We knew we could make that film for under $6 million.

When Ray Charles got on that bus in Florida and went to Seattle, he never stopped moving. He traversed almost every place in the United States and the world. So if you’re making a movie about his life, you need to give the audience the vicarious experience of being on that journey. In reality, it could not be a cheap movie. The movie ended up costing $35 million…

MM: So it was a cheap movie, relatively speaking.

TH: Actually, it was even cheaper than that. We made the film in Louisiana, which was the first state to pass a tax credit law. And it was great because we got $3.7 million back, so it actually cost $31 million and change. I’m very proud of the film and I’ll put the production value of the film against films that cost three times that amount. But that was a certain amount of money that a studio was just not interested in spending—it was too risky. “It’s a biopic; it should be on television.” No, it’s not a television movie, it’s a feature film. There are fantastic things in the story and all the things you want in a great picture. Most the time you want dramatic subjects with great characters and you’ll go to fiction; I said ‘This is as good as fiction or better.’ They wouldn’t buy that.

Second of all, I wanted to tell a full portrait of Ray Charles—warts and all. And they kind of went “Wait a minute, he’s rather unattractive here; he’s unsympathetic. He’s an absolute bastard in certain sequences.” I said ‘Yeah, that’s what makes him great.’ It’s not just a sugar-coated artist where everyone in the audience knows that’s baloney. They didn’t want to do that.

I also got “This is a black biopic. Ali didn’t work at the box office, this won’t either.” So, in reality, I had everyone saying “No, no, no.” And ultimately, no studio did say yes. No studio was involved in the making of this picture; it’s an independent film. So I don’t know. Looking at it as the film that you saw and the film that’s creating all the buzz, what didn’t they see? When the film was finished I took it and screened it at all the studios and they still turned it down.

MM: It always seems that the films that really generate such a buzz are the ones that had the hardest time making it to the screen in the first place.

TH: I tend to think that it proves that they just don’t know anything. Also, when they screen a movie, they’re sitting in their own screening rooms, talking on their cell phones. You need to see this film with an audience.

MM: They’re also comparing it to films that have come before it and how they did at the box office, which is the practice, but it’s really an unfair practice.

TH: But it’s a fact of life. It’s just one of those things where it took a long time to make. In a way—and I didn’t think so at the time, and the frustration was really pronounced for me—looking at it now, in retrospect, I think I was fortunate. I’m a better filmmaker than I was 15 years ago. I would not have had Jamie Foxx and nobody could play this role better. So it all worked out.

MM: Well, so much of that buzz is surrounding Jamie Foxx, claiming that this is the role he was born to play. What was your process for casting the lead in Ray?

TH: I’m not the kind of filmmaker who thinks of a star then thinks of a concept and sells it to a studio without a script. We see too many movies that are based on that. You kind of see them and go “Well, it’s full of talented people but what is it about?” I really believe you have to get the script right.

I spent a lot of time in the ’80s doing an adaptation [of this script]—a concept of how I was going to tell this story, which was different from the autobiography and different from the factual accounts of Ray’s life. But once I had that, I needed to find the money to get a script written and I knew that I wanted to have an African-American writer who had that voice. That didn’t happen until 2002; it took a long time to find anyone who would stand up. Jimmy White and I adapted my story and we got a script. Then I started looking for actors.

MM: How did you come to Jamie?

TH: You are limited in your ability to portray a character as famous as Ray Charles. Nobody remembered what Ritchie Valens, from La Bamba days, looked like. They knew the record, they knew the sound but they didn’t know what he looked like. You don’t have that luxury with Ray Charles. Everyone knows what he looks like; everyone has a perception of how he moves and talks and how he looks! So you have to start from the point of view of finding somebody who has a physical resemblance. Jamie Foxx’s jaw line is very similar to Ray Charles’; his head shape and his size were not unlike Ray Charles’.

In any event, I had seen a couple of roles he had done in films that impressed me. I directed The Devil’s Advocate and worked with Al Pacino. And what was imminently clear to me was that, working with Al, you’ve got to be a substantial actor to stay on the screen with him. On Any Given Sunday, Jamie had stayed on the screen with him beautifully, and that showed me that he had some acting chops—he was more than just a comedian. I also made When We Were Kings, the Ali documentary, and had used footage of Drew ‘Bundidi’ Brown, so I knew who he was pretty intimately. When I saw Ali, I thought that Jamie was the best thing in the movie. That let me know that the man had acting talent, however, they were character roles. Nothing he had done was of the size or scope of this role. So there wasn’t anything to say he could do it, just that I thought he was interesting and had a physical resemblance. And then I met him…

The thing that turned the corner for me was that I was talking to Jamie about how difficult it would be to portray Ray’s movement and his piano playing. I was saying that I was going to have to find someone who could play and I’d used cinematic tricks to come up to reveal Jamie singing. Jamie said “You don’t have to do that, I play the piano.” And I said ‘Well, I play the piano too, but I’m no Ray Charles.’ And basically he said, “Listen, I started playing piano when I was three, I lead the band in my gospel church in Texas and I went to university on a piano scholarship.” I made the commitment right there—I never looked at anyone else. I took a page out of Ray Charles’ book, who had the best instincts of anyone I’ve ever met. He trusted his instincts impeccably and I decided to take a page from his book and trust mine. I went with Jamie and that was that.

MM: Did Ray get to see the film come to completion?

TH: Yes, he did. I showed him a rough cut of the film. Ray was in the studio with me, recording original music for the film. There are lots of performances in this movie and I used masters and live performances of Ray’s. But there’s a lot of stuff in the film that has nothing to do with performance—him sitting alone in a room with Mary Ann and singing her “Drown In My Own Tears.” Him sitting alone in a den and singing “You Don’t Know Me.” Those are things that I explained to Ray that I wanted and he then performed them for me for the film. So that was a life experience; it was great. This was in February of 2003 and he was in fabulous shape.

I came back from shooting the film in Louisiana, and then went away for three months to cut it. I came back in the fall of 2003 and he was sick; he had deteriorated and it was very painful for me. When you have someone who you think is invincible, and it’s clear that they are terminal, it’s a very, very depressing moment. But he saw the film—and when I say saw, that’s how he commented, he said “I want to see it!” He sat next to the monitor, looking away from the monitor, and listened. And he finished it off and said “Taylor, I’m really pleased. I’m very happy.” That was his review and it’s the best I’ll ever get.

MM: You seem to be one of the few directors who really enjoys letting your actors take much of the credit when your movies find success.

TH: I’m very proud of the filmmaking in this film—I used a lot of techniques to be able to tell the story. But I usually eschew technique; I’m a storyteller. I’d rather have an audience get caught up in a story, be compelled by it, discover the nuances in an actor’s face and be totally into the film instead of ‘Oh gee, the director hung by his heels from the ceiling and swung around the room and is waving his camera all around the place.’ Somebody could say “waving his camera” and somebody could say “waving his dick.” That’s of no interest to me.

I have these collaborations with actors where I’m telling them, myself, ‘I’m trying to get your best performance ever.’ Most actors, if they’ve got any worth about them, love that challenge and we go into it together and go after it. I couldn’t speak more highly of Jamie Foxx. I’m telling you I pushed him and put test after test after test in front of him. I asked him ‘How much do you weigh?’ and he told me “190.” So I said ‘Well, Ray Charles is 156. Ray Charles is one of the most elegant dressers in entertainment. I don’t know how he did it, but he was always just beautiful. He’s slender. If you wear clothes, there are going to be bulges everywhere. Ray Charles, the fabric draped beautifully off of him. And he’s 156, Jamie. That’s what I’d like you to do this film at.’ He did it at 157.  That’s commitment.

I also told him that I wanted him to do the role blind. I felt, physically, it was important because if he’s got his eyes open behind those glasses he’ll anticipate things that the camera, as a microscope, will pick up and prove it’s a phony performance. But beyond that, more importantly, he needed to go into that place that Ray Charles is. He needed to understand what it’s like to be alone in the dark.

A lot of times you’re both directing with your voice and visually. That had to go. So when I would direct Jamie I would be right next to him, whispering. It was just between us, I didn’t want the world to know what we were talking about. And I had to describe things in a way, because he wasn’t seeing them. He didn’t know who was across the room, he didn’t know what was there, and it was up to me to describe and set up the scene. We developed a real intimacy…

But nobody acts alone. Jamie, as brilliant as he is, is surrounded by fabulous actors… I’m more than happy—whether it’s Pawel Edelman on camera, or Stephen Altman, my designer who did a fabulous job, or Paul Hircsch, my editor. These are all people I collaborated with for the first time. Except Nancy Klopper, my casting director who did a brilliant job, who I work with over and over again.

On this film, because of scheduling, because it took so long, because of lack of money, I had to work with a whole new cast of characters and they’re great. So those people, in addition to the cast, I’ll give full credit to. I won’t say that I don’t have a point of view—I do. I’ve got to communicate that to my collaborators and get my vision on the screen, and I did. But they are there to share credit. Because you’re not a painter at an easel or a writer alone at a typewriter. You are only as good as your collaborators. MM

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